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Welcoming Syrian Migrants

The Syrian migrant project started with a call to Carol Swallow from Zane Cohen: “Would the Division of General Surgery be interested in sponsoring a Syrian family?”. Carol gave enthusiastic approval. Carol and Zane then sent a note to members of the Division, including both the staff and the residents, listing the requirements as defined by “Lifeline Syria”, a non-governmental organization (NGO):

  1. A committed group
  2. $27,000 to support the incoming family for one year.

Lifeline Syria was launched in June of 2015 and incorporated as a not-forprofit in September of 2015 in response to the ongoing humanitarian refugee crisis, to assist sponsor groups to welcome and resettle Syrian refugees as permanent residents in the GTA. The organization is committed to helping Syrian refugees settle in Canada.

Carol and Zane polled the Division and received an immediate positive response. Some did raise the question whether it was appropriate to bring in more people when we have indigenous and homeless people already here, but a Committee formed quickly and began making contributions, mostly small donations. The Division quickly raised $35,000. Zane Cohen describes the preparations:

“The next step was to break up into specific task forces to organize an apartment, food, look after language issues, and arrange for transportation and guidance of the family around the city. The residents held a raffle for tickets to a Raptors game, a Jays game, and a Leafs game. These tickets were provided by Maple Leafs co-owner Larry Tannenbaum, a member of the Mount Sinai Hospital board. Lifeline Syria gave the group a choice between a government sponsored family, or a family with a Syrian relative here in Canada. We chose the latter. The mother of our sponsored family is the sister of a Syrian Canadian in Toronto. The father works in Human Relations in Syria. There are 2 boys ages 12 and 10. The sponsoring brother worked for Rogers on wireless systems. Everyone wanted to know the story of the family. They were bombed out of their home, fled to Turkey, and then came to Toronto on February 28, 2017.

Zane contacted the philanthropic Latner family who helped by providing an apartment on Dunfield Ave. near Yonge and Eglinton. “The Committee organized donations of furnishings for the apartment. Shiva Jayaraman provided a bedroom set. Jim and Mari Rutka provided plates, place settings and chairs. Furniture was moved at no charge by Polanski movers. It was not necessary to buy anything except for a couch. Everything else was contributed by members of the Division. Sav Brar provided room for collecting the donated furniture and appliances at his home. Everybody, especially residents, picked up and helped store the donations. Resident Rod Turzer provided a pick-up truck.

“The next step is to settle them in”, says Zane. “We have great organization. Carol’s assistant Faryal Mehboob was an organizing force. Lifeline Syria will direct the new arrivals to establish channels for English classes, school and emergency needs. These and other private sponsors will take Justin Trudeau’s promise of 25,000 placements to well over 30,000 just within the Toronto area.

“The one year contract with the Latner family expired and they did not arrive until one year later so the apartment was left barren with all the furnishings. The Latner family have renewed this for another year on a pro-bono and that is quite generous of them to do that. They finally arrived at Pearson on February the 28th. I picked them up along with Hala Muadi, one of our surgical residents. There was an incredible response, particularly from our residents, eight of whom speak Arabic, as well as from Najma Ahmed. I also had Salah Metwaly, my IT person at our Digestive Diseases Centre meet them. We had three cars there. They had 12 suitcases and they were unbelievably grateful, crying, and very relieved. It was quite an emotional scene at the airport.

“We took them to their apartment and we have worked with them, a number of us, on various aspects. First and foremost, we took them shopping. Najma Ahmed organized a Halal dinner and we found them a community centre where they could pray. Importantly, the parents had full assessments done by one of the Toronto Community Centres that placed them in an English as a Second Language school at Eglinton and Yonge, nearby to where they live. The mother has some English background and in fact, in school she took some courses in English literature. The father speaks less English. They have been put at level 5 and 4 respectively and they are in school every day and they have to get up to a level 8 before we can really try to find a job for them.

“As far as the children are concerned, they are 12 and 16, both boys. The 12 year old was placed at Hodgson Public School and he integrated almost immediately and has a ton of friends already. It was a different story for the older boy who needed to be assessed as far as his skills were concerned. His home school was chosen to be Forest Hill but they didn’t have a specialized program for him to catch up and, therefore, for the next few months he goes to George Harvey, which is at Keele and Eglinton. They are fully aware of the transportation system in the city. When they arrived they were given permanent residence status as well as federal health cards and have already applied for OHIP. They have opened a bank account. We do give them a certain allotment each month and they have a credit card as well. They have a television that they are watching for English language as well as learning from the internet. In my opinion, they are doing very well and the kids in particular, are being integrated into the system. The parents are a little more challenged. They need their language skills improved. I think that the father feels marginalized because he does not yet have a job, but hopefully that will come.

“So, that is exactly where we are. I have been keeping in fairly close touch with them. Their Canadian family has been keeping in close touch with them and our residents, particularly those who speak Arabic, have been wonderful and have been calling to see them and also to give them advice. Most recently one of our residents gave them advice with regard to a minor medical problem. They do not have a family physician yet but we are working on that.”

Zane helped organize a similar charitable drive by the Division of General Surgery at Toronto General when he was on the staff there in the late ’70s and early ’80s. They brought in 4 Vietnam boat people, using donations and matching government funds. The 4 people they brought in were provided with a house in the Danforth area. “The father of the family got a job picking worms for fisheries, wearing a headlight and crawling around at night in the London area. He was well paid and we got lots of donations. I kept in touch with the family. The Syrian project was a similar experience, this time at the end of my career. It is easy because doctors are altruistic. They only need to see the need and they respond. My wife and I later went to Vietnam for 2 weeks and saw what life was like there for ourselves. We enjoy helping people. I can’t answer the question Why we should do this, when there are so many homeless and underresourced indigenous and others in Canada?, but we have to start somewhere. This is a very appealing and fun project that gets us out of the medical rut. The organizing committee can be named, but Carol and I agreed that we will not name donors and their donations.

“This was a big project with lots of work, lots of fun, a wonderful communal spirit, giving enthusiasm, time, money and energy. Many of the residents come from immigrant families who were happy to be giving back.”

Martin McKneally

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